Tens of thousands of protesters led by the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist factions turned out in Cairo’s Tahrir Square on Friday to demonstrate against the interim military government. If these radicals represent the future of Egypt, it is best that the military stays in control.
Controversy has erupted over a document issued by the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, which assigns the military the role of safeguarding constitutional legitimacy and dilutes the influence of the upcoming parliamentary elections. It also shields military budgets and personnel decisions from prospective future civilian governments. The military would appoint 80 percent of the members of the committee that will draw up the new Egyptian constitution. It’s a recipe for continued military rule.
Appearances notwithstanding, the Egyptian military has not relinquished its power. Former Egyptian ruler Hosni Mubarak’s downfall had more to do with internal military politics than the impact of popular protests. Mr. Mubarak attempted to engineer the succession of his son Gamal, who wasn’t a military officer. It appeared that the Mubarak clan was seeking to claim de facto hereditary title to Egypt in the way the Assad family did in Syria. At its heart, Hosni’s ouster was more of a coup than a revolution. The military’s subsequent efforts to control the process of creating a new government reinforce that perspective.
There’s no reason to believe an Islamist-dominated Egypt would have a democratic character. Democracy is inimical to Islamism. Those who believe Shariah is a perfect system of human governance bestowed (or imposed) by God have no use for the compromises and shifting policies characteristic of democracy. Banners carried in Friday’s demonstration calling the Koran Egypt’s true constitution are a case in point. Islamists may pay lip service to liberalism by saying that democratic decisions that don’t conflict with Shariah are permitted, but all this means is that people are free to vote to agree with the mullahs. If they disagree, they are free to keep their heretical thoughts to themselves or face punishment. Egyptian liberals who make common cause with the Islamists are what Soviet revolutionary leader Vladimir Lenin called “useful idiots.” In an Islamist regime, theirs would be among the first voices silenced, literally.
If the choice in Egypt comes down to a Western-leaning military rule that helped maintain stability for decades or a radical, revisionist theocratic state, America should back the devil it knows. The U.S. commitment to promoting popular rule has never been blind to the reality that democracy can be subverted to serve the ends of extremism. The propensity of democracies to transition to tyrannies has been well documented since the time of the ancient Greeks. It was what turned the French Revolution into The Terror. It opened the door to Bolshevism in Russia and fascism in Europe. It turned Iran’s revolution from a middle-class uprising into an Islamic takeover.
U.S. nation-building efforts after World War II explicitly banned electoral participation by communists and other extremist groups because it was the most practical way to give those countries a chance to survive with Western-style governments. To do otherwise would be, in the words of Thomas Jefferson, “absurdly sacrificing the ends to the means.”